Globalization has brought a radical change in the status of women the world over and many of the rights of women have now been recognized and established through law. However the societal attitude in many spheres of the life is still hostile to women’s autonomy and results in violating the right to equality guaranteed under the Constitution of India.
Sexual harassment at workplace is one such form of gender discrimination which impedes invisibly the capabilities of a woman to develop and to prove herself in today; competing world. Apart from interfering with their performance at work, sexual harassment at the workplace also puts a woman to physical and emotional suffering.
Sexual harassment at workplace has, in recent past, assumed greater dimensions, largely on account of a larger number of women stepping out of their homes to be a part of the mainstream workforce of the country. The phenomenon is, however, not peculiar to India as other developed and developing countries too have faced a similar challenge and taken steps to effectively deal with the same. We need to create more awareness on the issue and help the employers in providing to their women employees a safe and secure working environment.
Lewd jokes, groping, inappropriate comments are now part of any Indian woman’s life, so much so that it is dismissed as normal, with women hesitant to take any action due to apprehension of being disbelieved or ridiculed; which underpins the need for greater enforcement, and a greater awareness of the issue.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 came into effect on December 9, 2013, followed by the issue of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 that came into force on December 9, 2015.
The Act amended the definition of Rape and outraging modesty of women, and included sexual harassment as a cognizable offence. It also clearly explains what constitutes as sexual harassment, including quid pro quo and retaliation; a hostile work environment and humiliating treatment. The Act clarifies that a workplace covers any place under the direct or indirect control of the employer that an employee needs to be present or go to in order to carry out work. It includes office and other locations where the job responsibilities are undertaken, such as offices of clients, destinations of business trips, venues of business lunch/ dinner, business branches, homes of clients etc. and also the appropriate extension of the workplace, such as excursions, social activities, staff gathering after work etc.
Further, the Act makes it mandatory for every employer of a workplace (Employing more than ten persons) to constitute an “Internal Complaints Committee” (ICC), by an order in writing, for handling the complaints of sexual harassment. If offices or administrative units of the organization are located at different places, the ICC is required to be constituted at all the administrative units or offices.
The ICC enjoys enormous powers equivalent to the powers of a civil court. The ICC should mostly comprise women members, who have been given special training on the Act/ Rules and their roles and responsibilities.
The composition of the ICC is as follows:
1. Woman Presiding Officer (A senior level woman officer from amongst the employees). In case a senior level woman employee is not available, then the Presiding officer shall be nominated from other offices or administrative units. In case even other offices or administrative units do not have a senior level woman employee, then the Presiding Officer shall be nominated from any other workplace of the same employer or other department or organization.
2. Two employees with experience in social work and legal knowledge
3. One member from an NGO, or associations committed to the cause of women, or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment. The presence of an NGO member is of utmost importance as it will ensure neutrality and lack of bias since s/he is unlikely to be influenced by the management. The NGO member should be well versed with the issue of sexual harassment, and should have atleast five years’ experience in the field of social work towards empowerment of women, and in particular addressing workplace sexual harassment.
The functioning of the committee should be made autonomous so that no scope for allegations of bias, or favouritism arises.
Regular trainings need to be conducted for members of the ICC, in addition to orientation for new recruits and existing employees on what is appropriate behaviour.
Periodic meetings need to be held between the ICC members and employees on safety concerns and need for prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. The ICC should encourage women employees to report cases of sexual harassment and reassure them that they will not face any stigma from reporting a case of sexual harassment; and will be protected from any retaliation.